‘Still Out There’

Steve Piatt

It began as it always does, with a 3:30 a.m. alarm, one that really wasn’t necessary. It never is during spring gobbler season — I’d been awake on and off all night, a habit not broken over more than 40 years of spring gobbler hunting, and not just on opening day when optimism reigns and you’re wired for another season to begin.

Our yellow Lab Finn, apparently able to discern the difference between a spring turkey hunt and her fall pheasant outings, casually takes my spot on the bed, then becomes its sole occupant after Paula arises and begins the morning ritual that will carry us through the season — our favorite season, with no close second.

It’s a routine that starts slowly with coffee and a weather check, then builds to a crescendo as we don camo, organize gear and begin planning the morning setup.

Any opening day — deer, turkey, trout, bass — carries its own level of excitement, but for us, the spring gobbler kickoff signals an exhausting but exhilarating month of hunting highlighted, hopefully, by cooperative longbeards in both Pennsylvania and New York, as well as other states in a typical spring.

Sleep deprivation alone makes it a physically taxing season, but toss in miles logged carrying shotguns, decoys and, at times, blinds and seats, dealing with all sorts of weather conditions and sitting for long periods in often uncomfortable positions, and the cumulative effect is noticeable. Suddenly, May becomes a blur of coffee, Advil, fast food, power naps in the truck, long, hot showers at midday and maybe even a trip to the chiropractor after legal shooting hours.

It’s something we gladly accept, challenges offset by those gloriously calm mornings when the birds are gobbling and responding to a call, when they make an appearance and slowly work their way into shooting range, strutting, spitting, drumming — heck, glowing — in the sunlight.

Too, there’s so much more than turkeys during spring turkey season. Gobblers or not, there’s no place Paula and I would rather be on a spring morning than out there, watching and listening to the woods come to life.

A typical season involves encounters with whitetail fawns, black bears, foxes, coyotes, maybe a fisher or bobcat if we’re really fortunate. Throw in a shed antler or two and the prospect of stumbling into morel mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and leeks and suddenly a gobbler is furthest from our minds.

Opening day is a ritual that must be observed, if only to begin the transition into the morning hunting routine. This Keystone State opener, however, offered promise in the form of cool and calm conditions and a rising sun that could create some vision issues if the blind wasn’t set properly.

Gobbling was sporadic on the roost, and distant from our hunting spot. But we knew the birds’ typical travel route, and if it didn’t happen, well, we were still enjoying the songbird symphony.

Not surprisingly, too, was the silence after flydown. Our scouting runs had told us that was the norm of late.

When a pair of gobbles — one clearly better than the other — signaled the approach of a spring flock, we knew we were in the game. And when the better of the two birds appeared at 80 yards, strutting his stuff in the morning sun, things got serious.

It took awhile, but eventually the longbeard, after dipping below a rise in the field, popped up facing directly toward our lone hen decoy. All that was left at that point was the story’s final chapter — the heart-stopping, spectacular approach, the decision, and Paula’s shot.

It was 7:43 a.m., and we were standing over what the scales and tape measure eventually showed to be a 20-pound, 8-ounce gobbler, with a 10 1/8-inch beard and 1-inch spurs.

Another season had begun. Our season.

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